Sortum: Diversification and management keys to maintaining next generation on the ranch
Supporting three families on the ranch is no easy task these days. However, with diversification and better management of resources, one Sandhills ranch has been able to provide for the next generation.
Sarah Sortum says her great-grandfather homesteaded in the Sandhills in 1904. For years, the ranch was operated as a traditional cow/calf operation that was able to support three families. However, by the time Sortum and her brother were in high school, that all changed.
“The ranch went to supporting one family, and we were basically struggling on the land,” she told fellow ranchers.
Supporting a family
After Sortum and her brother graduated from high school and wanted to return to the ranch, the family knew things had to change.
“To maintain our families, the key has been diversification and protecting those natural resources. It has been the secret to our success,” she says.
The move toward becoming more solvent hasn’t been an easy one, Sortum continues.
In 2001, the family was in the hayfield when a tornado blew through. As they climbed into the pickup and sped away to get out of the tornado’s path, her mother swore she saw a cow flying in the air, but thought her eyes were deceiving her.
After the storm, when Sortum’s dad and brother went to check on the windmills, they found over 50 cows that had had died during the storm. Most were healthy two- and three-year-olds.
“That was devastating,” Sortum recalls. “It was a big financial and emotional hit for our family. It spurred my family into thinking in a different direction. Because of it, we now have three different revenue streams.”
Sortum’s parents sold the ranch herd and now background calves during the winter. They also purchase short-term cows, and custom graze cattle during the summer months.
“This diversified system has proven to be much less financial risk, it facilitates advantageous reactions to market trends, and it allows more flexibility on management decisions on the ground,” she explains. “We try to determine how much money these enterprises make per head and per acre. We also figure out how much it makes per Bruce hour.”
“Bruce is my dad, and he is the one who has devoted all this time to the ranch. The rest of us help on the ranch as much as we can,” she says. “So many times we take our time for granted or we don’t count our time. Our time is important to figure in.”
With three families living on the ranch now, family meetings have become a necessity.
“We sit down and talk as a family,” Sortum says. “When it comes down to whether doing something is right for us or not, we look at four things. We look at production and how it will affect it. We look at how it will affect our economic sustainability. We look at how it will contribute to our conservation goals, and we look at how it affects our quality of life. We can’t be miserable.”
In the end, hopefully the family will agree whether they have made a good decision or not, Sortum notes.
Currently, the ranch has several management goals including employing ecological processes of grazing and fire, grazing for heterogeneity, maintaining natural hydrology and controlling invasive species.
“These goals were put in place in recognition of the importance of managing our natural resources in sustainable ways, which ultimately keeps the ranch going,” she says.
Another major diversification is a tourism operation started in 2001 by Sortum’s brother, Adam. Calamus Outfitters is a nature-based tourism business that is operated alongside the ranching operation, Sortumexplains.
“It generates more income off the same acres through lodging, hunting, river trips and jeep safari tours,” she explains.
During the summer, the family offers lodging for tourists. They have two lodges and four cabins that can hold about 64 people when they are filled to capacity.
During the day, tourists can participate in river trips and water activities, in addition to jeep rides that allow them a personal view of how the ranch operates. Guests have the opportunity to see nature, and the family also offers hunting from pheasant and upland game to deer and turkeys.
“Diversification has allowed us to view our resources differently,” Sortum explains. “While our grass and water are still of utmost importance to our ranch operations, we recognize that the wildlife, scenery and experience of our resources are also valuable and worthy of thoughtful planning and management.”
The ranch was also the first private land in Nebraska to be deemed as an important bird area by Audubon Nebraska. This designation has brought more tourists to the ranch to view the different species of birds who make their homes there.
“This designation was an important step for us in our tourism business because now we are put on a public stage,” Sortumsays.
“We have an open door policy,” she continues. “We invite anybody and everybody to our place. There have been some people who came that I have been nervous about, but my dad always tells me we have nothing to hide.”
“He has always impressed me, because he reminds me that we have a healthy resource and we are doing good things on the land. It is an opportunity for other people to come and see what we do and realize that,” she says. “It has always been a positive experience. It gives us the opportunity to explain to them how raising beef on this grass supports so many species and is responsible for a lot of other important ecological functions, as well.”
Sortum says her family has found that ecotourism is a really useful tool, especially in rural areas.
“Tourism has encouraged us to be better managers,” she says.